As Democrats wake up to a huge wave of Republican victories, especially in the U.S. House of Representatives, we can be certain of one thing: without the massive turnout of Latinos who broke heavily for Democrats in key races, the disaster would have been even more severe.
Case in point, Latinos turned out big for Sen. Harry Reid breaking almost 90 percent in his favor. Bottom line - they supported a candidate who was a champion on immigration reform and jobs, and punished Sharron Angle who attacked immigrant s and demonized Latinos over and over again. Several lessons can be drawn from last night's results:
Lesson 1: Latinos are clear on who their friends are. Beginning with the introduction of proposition 187 in California, up until today, the struggle for immigration reform has had one clear outcome: it has deeply politicized a generation of Latinos in the U.S. Every year, the number of Latino voters rise, and we get ever more politically sophisticated. We know who our friends are. People like Sens. Bennet and Reid were rewarded for their early and vocal support of immigration issues.
Jerry Brown solidly trounced corporate executive Meg Whitman who spent a record $140 million dollars of her own money in a brazen attempt to buy the California Governor's mansion. Voters not only rejected her corporate views, Latinos flatly delivered a knockout punch to her anti-immigrant messaging.
Lesson 2: The electorate is not anti-immigrant. It is anti-recession. Wins by Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky happened in states with unemployment higher than the national average. In Colorado and Delaware, however, unemployment is less than the national average. The results speak for themselves. White voters were turning out not to reward anti-immigrants, but to throw out the people they perceived as responsible for propping up companies like AIG and Bank of America. Change the unemployment rate and watch the fire go out of the tea party as if you'd tossed a bucket of water on it.
Even more telling for immigration issues, are California and Nevada. These states have some of the highest unemployment in the country. They should have been places the incumbents would have been out of work by the times the polls closed yesterday. Without Angle's suicidal run at the Latino community in Nevada, without Meg Whitman throwing her nanny under the bus in California, that is exactly what would have occured. But in both instances, the sophisticated electorate of Latino voters was watching, and they responded.
Lesson 3: Winning the Presidency is going to be almost impossible without Latinos and immigrants. New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois and Texas all have huge numbers of Latino and immigrant voters. Add to that, states like Colorado and Nevada, with their now proven track record of Latino involvement and you have a lead that is almost insurmountable, assuming you take the right position.
This poses challenges to both parties. The challenge for the Republican Party is obvious. For years, they have been locked into an unresolved internal debate. The politics of right now (let's bash immigrants in specific localities) vs the politics of the next 20 years (let's change our stance towards immigrants and Latinos and win back the Bush vote margins). If they want a real chance at gaining the White House, they will have to modify their stance, and that means modifying the legislation the new speaker brings forth, and how they choose to portray their party on issues important to Latinos. Without this shift, they can forget about 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the next 20 years.
The challenge for Democrats is less obvious, but no less imperative. Voters turn out for two reasons. There are people they want to punish, and people they want to reward. Republicans did a good job of providing the negative reinforcement needed to get Latinos out in some crucial states, but they may not be that dumb in 2012. And Democrats meanwhile, have done precious little to provide the positive reinforcement needed to turn out the Latino vote in the odd case that Republicans see the light and tone down their rhetoric. If Democrats want to continue counting on the Latino vote, it would behoove them to be proactive about it, and in poll after poll there is only one way to do this - pass immigration reform.
This will not be easy for either party. Republicans will have people like Rep. Steve King of Iowa calling for the deportation of anyone with a Z in their name. And Democrats will be terrified that taking a proactive stance on immigration will cost them the seats they have left in the House. But one thing is clear after this last election, Latinos have come into our own politically, and we don't plan to turn back.